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Changes in bird abundance after wildfire: importance of fire severity and time since fire

Author(s): Kristina M. Smucker, Richard L. Hutto, Brian M. Steele
Year Published: 2005

Fire can cause profound changes in the composition and abundance of plant and animal species, but logistics, unpredictability of weather, and inherent danger make it nearly impossible to study high-severity fire effects experimentally. We took advantage of a unique opportunity to use a before-after/control-impact (BACI) approach to analyze changes in bird assemblages after the severe fires of 2000 in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana. Observers surveyed birds using 10-minute point counts and collected vegetation data from 13 burned and 13 unburned transects for five years before fire and three years after fire. We compared changes in vegetation variables and relative bird abundance from before to after fire between the set of points that burned and the set of points that did not burn. The magnitude of change in vegetation variables from before to after fire increased with fire severity. The relative abundances of nine bird species showed significantly greater changes from before to after fire at burned points compared with unburned points. Moreover, when burned points were separated by whether they burned at low, moderate, or high severity, an additional 10 species showed significant changes in relative abundance from before to after fire at one or more severities. Overall, almost twice as many bird species increased as decreased significantly in response to fire. We also found changes in abundance between one year after and two years after fire for most species that responded to fire. Thus, species that have been termed 'mixed responders' in the literature appear to be responding differently to different fire severities or different time periods since fire, rather than responding variably to the same fire conditions. These findings underscore the importance of fire severity and time since fire and imply that both factors must be considered to understand the complexities of fire effects on biological communities. Because different bird species responded positively to different fire severities, our results suggest a need to manage public lands for the maintenance of all kinds of fires, not just the low-severity, understory burns that dominate most discussions revolving around the use of fire in forest restoration.

Citation: Smucker, Kristina M.; Hutto, Richard L.; Steele, Brian M. 2005. Changes in bird abundance after wildfire: importance of fire severity and time since fire. Ecological Applications. 15(5): 1535-1549.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - First Order, Ecological - Second Order, Wildlife, Fire Regime, Fire Intensity / Burn Severity, Fire & Wildlife, Birds, Fuels, Fuel Treatments & Effects, Naturally-ignited Fire-use treatments, Recovery after fire
Ecosystem(s): Montane wet mixed-conifer forest, Montane dry mixed-conifer forest
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 8256
FRAMES RCS number: 9841
Record updated: Jul 5, 2018